Posts from the ‘Belize’ category

See a Jaguar in Belize

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

How did you sleep last night? It’s hard to be fully rested when you know there are jaguars (and 4 other big cat species) wandering around outside – every rustle, every noise, makes you wonder what’s happening.

How many jaguars are left in Belize?

Less than 800 – will we see one? Photo by Eric Terdal, CC License

Whichever genius in the everydaydream holiday group brought ingredients for a cooked breakfast deserves to be knighted! What a fantastic start to a Tuesday that will involve a lot of hiking and swimming in our quest to experience the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (where we arrived last night).

There’s no fixed location in the 128,000 acre sanctuary where you are guaranteed to see jaguars (or any of the other big cats – Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, or Margay). Rather than wander aimlessly and hope, we’ve planned a day that will be a lot of fun even if the cats stay away.

Jaguar Crossing Sign

Of course, there’s no guarantee they will cross while you wait! Photo by ambertq, CC License

Our main destination is Tiger Fern falls, actually two waterfalls that are an easy-enough walk through the sanctuary. We reach the first not long after the heat of the day sets in, so it’s a blissful hour spent swimming here. Cockscomb (named after the nearby mountain that looks like a rooster’s comb) is not exactly a secret, but it’s hardly an easy tourist destination to access. Add to that remoteness the sheer size of the sanctuary, and it’s entirely possible to spend a few days camping and hiking here without coming across another human. Certainly, our swim feels more like a private experience than a public pool.

Waterfall Swimming! Photo by ambertq, CC License

Waterfall Swimming! Photo by ambertq, CC License

We turn, and begin the hike (via a different path) back out. Naturalists (not to be confused with Naturists especially when travelling) are confident that there remain many undiscovered species within the Cockscomb Basic, particularly in the harder to access West Basin. There’s every chance our group could be the first people in the world to spot a specific species of butterfly or plant – although, unless you’re a botanist with Central American expertise, I doubt you’ll know it when you see it!

And just when we begin to feel that this trip – amazing as it has been – would end without spotting a big cat, there one is. The jaguar is only outgrown by the lions of Africa and the Tigers of Asia – it’s large, gorgeous, endangered (hence the sanctuary), and intimidating even as it moves softly through the jungle some way off the path. It feels almost rude to photograph the cat, infringing as we are upon his preserve. For the few moments he (and, based on the size, it’s definitely a male) is visible, our whole group feels like they’re holding their breath – nobody wants to disturb the moment.

What's that through those trees?

JAGUAR! Photo by Brian Fagan, CC License

And that’s the moment we will hold with us tonight. Probably for longer, but definitely for tonight as we embark on another Central American overnight bus experience. Last weekend we boarded in a city and ended on a tropical paradise; and tonight will be the same, as we don a cardigan and climb aboard the notoriously chilly overnight bus from Belize City to Cancun, Mexico.

Want to go? Need to know!

Does anybody think we spent too little time in Belize City? What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.

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Waving the Flag in Belize City

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

There’s something special about starting a new day on island. Even when you know the plan is to head back to the mainland (and we have a mid-morning water taxi back to Belize City), it really does feel like you are completely separated from any worldly concerns you may have. Caye Caulker, off the cost of Belize, certainly feels that way.

Belize City boats

Lobster Boats in the harbour of Belize City. Photo by Roger4336, CC License

Our first destination after the water taxi delivers us to Belize City (and we walk across the manually controlled Swing Bridge) is the Museum of Belize, an opportunity to brush up on our history (not really) and see inside the former prison cells (really). The permanent exhibits here are a juxtaposition of the English colony (stamps and coins for example) and the much older indigenous history of the region (Maya Masterpieces is a must).

The history of Belize is emblazoned on their national flag, and the imagery there is so rich that their flag contains more colours than the flag of any other nation (12 in total, the next nearest is 9). And the flag forms a highlight in the Museum tour, where you can see a torn and dirty example that was found in the ruins of the World Trade Centre, after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Unlike the neighbouring Guatemala which was properly settled by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century, Belize was controlled as a British Colony from 1862 to 1981; English remains the official language. So when someone in Guatemala says “look at the Colonial buildings”, expect to see ruins and bungalows up to 400 years old (oh, and they’ll probably say “mirar los edificios coloniales”); when someone in Belize says “look at the Colonial buildings”, expect grand houses from the mid 1800s!

Government House Belize City

Government House, a Belize House of Culture. Photo by Roger4336, CC License

One such example is today’s Government House, originally built in 1815 and opened to the public as an event venue in 1998. There are art exhibits on display here, but our visit is from the outside and as an opportunity to feel some more of Central America’s varied history. Continuing the flag theme, it was here in 1981 that Belize’s national flag was official raised for the first time.

And take a look at the brick Cathedral of St John across the road – it’s the oldest Anglican Church in Central America. (Which, to be fair, is a bit like pointing out the oldest Mayan Temple in Great Britain.)

And then, surprise surprise, there’s another bus trip to enjoy! (Experience? Survive? If you missed our tips for long bus rides, you can read them here.) This one is not so bad, 3.5 hours from Belize City in the direction of Punta Gorda. We’re travelling with James Bus Lines – and while they’re excellent, we can’t say the same for the roads!

We’re delighted to be exiting the bus, and just in time to grab our tickets at the Maya Center adjacent to (well, a $US15 taxi ride from) the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Welcome to Cockscombe Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Welcome to Cockscombe Basin. Photo by ambertq, CC License

This sanctuary protects all five of Belize’s big cats: Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, and Margay. While coming out here meant extra time in a bus, it was well worth it as we settle into our ‘White House’ accommodation within the Cockscomb Basin. There’s just enough time as the sun sets to cook our dinner in the kitchen provided, and base ourselves on the screened-in verandah to watch the evening wildlife emerge.

What is a jaguarundi?

What is a jaguarundi? This is a jaguarundi! Photo by Alena Houšková, CC License

What is a Margay cat?

What is a Margay? This is a Margay! Photo by Malene Thyssen, CC License

No Jaguars tonight – we might have to look further afield tomorrow.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Water Taxis run regularly between Caye Caulker and Belize City.
  • Looking for a place to eat in Belize City? We could suggest one, but really you want to read this article from the fabulous San Pedro Scoop.
  • The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary offers a range of places to sleep, depending on your travel preferences (flush toilet or pit latrine?) and the number of people you’re travelling with (we find dormitory bedding adds to a group holiday experience, and detracts from a couple’s romantic weekend in Belize!)

Does anybody think we spent too little time in Belize City? What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.

On The Buses and Off the Mainland

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Friday morning dawns clearly, and it’s the smell that first reminds us to the fact that we weren’t camping in the desert last night – while we were sleeping, the Pacaya volcano was still erupting around us (and generating that sulphur smell!). It was entirely worth spending the night here, for the overnight tales around a lava campfire and for this – an opportunity to experience the volcano well before the crowds of tourists arrive.

Volcano by day

Pacaya Morning. Photo by Joachim Pietsch, CC License

So while they’re all just getting off their buses, we’re on our way back to better explore the town of Antigua, Guatemala. Ordered evacuated in the late 1700s, the town today is a mix of those Spanish colonial ruins and a modern central American community wanted to display the colours and flavours of this region. There’s an easy lunch to grab at the markets, and coffee … well, it’s just as good (and local) as the chocolate was yesterday.

Mother and Child, Guatemala

Downtown Antigua. Photo by szeke, CC License

Our last stop is a drink on the rooftop terrace of Cafe Sky, the perfect space to watch the sun set between the volcanoes that surround the town. For us today, the weather is not as perfect as it could be – there are storms rolling in. Make sure you grab an extra drink for the road – we have a long night ahead of us … on the buses.

Chicken Bus!

Chicken Bus! Photo by David Dennis, CC License

Central America is known for its ‘Chicken Buses’, mostly old US school buses repurposed for local transport where they are reborn with character … and a little craziness. We feel a little crazy waiting in the bus shelter for our 7pm bus to arrive, but what a moment to savour when it does. It’s Friday night in Guatemala, and our senses are being pressed by the encroaching storm; focusing us on the small things that surround us as we board; and as lightning cracks and the rain begins to dump our bus pulls out from Antigua on the way back to Guatemala City.

Colourful as the Chicken Buses are (and if you love the photos here, consider buying the book here!), it’s the fellow passengers that make the journey exciting. We’re on a dream holiday, yet for them this is reality, living and working in the small town of Antigua and each with their own reason to be heading into the capital city in the rain. Travelling by bus in Guatemala is a tourist ritual, and to miss a Chicken Bus experience is like going to Pisa, Italy, to only see the train station.

The same can’t be said of all bus journeys, however. This is just the first leg of a marathon effort that will take us all the way from this plantation community on Friday night to the island of Caye Caulker, in neighbouring Belize, on Saturday afternoon.

Tips for surviving long bus rides
We recently shared our tips for surviving long train journeys. In our experience, 8 hours on a train is much, much easier than 8 hours on a bus. And so our tips are different.

  • Pack plenty of water and snacks
  • And pack wet wipes for your face (et cetera). This will help the person next to you as much as it will help you!
  • If you’ve ever had any kind of motion sickness, be prepared to elbow your way to get a seat near the front of the bus
  • Things to bring on a long bus ride start with Headphones, headphones, headphones – you don’t always want to use them because the long bus rides are the perfect opportunity to talk to people, meet interesting fellow travellers (or locals) and gain some tips about places to go / see / eat /sleep. But it’s also good to have a backup plan
  • Don’t plan to sleep on the bus. Unless you’re very tired (or used to it), you probably won’t, even if it’s an overnight bus
  • Move your seat back asap. The longer you leave it forward, the more of a kick from behind you’ll get when you first recline
  • Use the toilet at every pitstop, even if you don’t think you need to go – no matter how bad it is, it’s probably better than experiencing the smell of the bus toilet (or a nasty pothole experience)
  • And here’s a sneaky one we love from Redditer crackanape: “in a cheap country, I try to buy a child ticket for the seat next to me. Sometimes they get annoyed when I can’t produce an actual child, but it’s always worked in the end.”

Our overnight bus from Guatemala City east to the town of Flores is thankfully incident-free, helped by the fact that we booked a 1st Class bus rather than the locals, which are somewhat cheaper but can potentially stop every 30 minutes … for 12 hours.

We arrive in Flores just after 5am, with the sun just a hint on the horizon and the storms having long since rolled through. There’s two hours here to stretch our legs by walking around the small town with the (successful) aim of finding fresh coffee at 7am on a Saturday morning. Most of our fellow passengers are staying here, with plans to visit the nearby Tikal National Park. We have one more bus, an express (always take the express) from Flores across the border into Belize, and up to Belize City where we arrive at lunchtime. As we board the water taxi in Belize City, we can feel our final destination – and then we can see it, the small island of Caye Caulker, where the sea air has the magic effect of washing away any deleterious effects of all that time on the bus.

Snorkelling Caye Caulker

Snorkelling Caye Caulker. Photo by rhurtubia, CC License

Saturday afternoon is spent exploring the island. We have time to ourselves – pretty well everything in Caye Caulker is a 20 minute walk away, at most. (And if that’s too much of a strain, you can hire a golf cart and take it really easy.) And there’s the option of an afternoon Bird Tour where … yes … that’s exactly what we needed to remind ourselves why we travel…a Tucan taking flight!

Tucan takes flight

Tucan play at that game. Photo by lowjumpingfrog, CC License

If the camping and the bus trip are still clinging to you, you’ll love our Sunday plans as we jump onto a boat for a full day snorkelling tour. Caye Caulker is on the edge of a tropical reef, and there’s no shortage of tropical fish and coral to snorkel past. We also have a chance to find out why Shark-Ray Alley is so named – and remember, any fins you see here probably aren’t attached to dolphins!! Lastly, there’s a chance to visit the Swallow Caye Marine Reserve – if anyone is loving the water as much as we are today, it’s these endangered Manatees that just look so darn huggable!

Tropical Fish

Diving for colour in Belize. Photo by A is for Angie, CC License

Manatee AND a Dugong

Is it a Manatee or a Dugong? Photo by Keith Ramos, CC License

Hot lava to cold ocean. That’s the everydaydream holiday weekend!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • You can fly from Guatemala City to Belize City to avoid the buses. Just be prepared to pay over $200 for the 45 minute flight … a positive bargain for the almost $100 you can pay for the onward flight from Belize City to Caye Caulker. Or pay a premium for shuttle buses (and miss the local experience) http://www.transportguatemala.com/shuttle-schedule.php
  • The roads in Guatemala are far better than you’re expecting, which also helps with enjoying the bus experience.
  • Water Taxis will cost $20Bz each way, but like most things in Belize US DOllars are also welcome (just confirm prices before handing them over, to avoid anything untoward).
  • Tsunami Adventures offer bird tours both by walking (on the southern end of Caye Caulker) or incorporating a boat tour to the north of the island
  • Caye Caulker is also a popular dive site, with experienced divers often travelling here just to explore the 145m deep Great Blue Hole in the centre of the Lighthouse Reef
  • Manatees are also known as Dugongs. An endangered species globally, they’re often overlooked in a world of Finding Nemo and Shark Fin Soup. Companies like Humpybong in Australia are trying to change that awareness gap.

What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.